It all started with the Atari 800XL that my grandfather sent me for Christmas when I was 6 or 7. Next came the subscription to COMPUTE! and many hours of typing in BASIC code. Then the dual 5.25" floppy drives and the tape drive showed up on my computer desk and I was able to save these programs off to rerun later! I think I had something like 300-350 games on floppy disks when we sold that computer and upgraded to our Packard Bell 486DX2.
I have some fond memories of the Packard Bell computer, it was the first time I opened up something electronic and actually upgraded something, lots of somethings truthfully. I remember pleading with my parents to get a 9600 baud modem because the 2400 just didn’t cut it anymore - then when I installed it, it didn’t work. They thought I had fried the computer, turns out it was a bad modem. Now when you buy a laptop, everything is hardwired “to make it slimmer”, damn shame.
The modems led to my discovery of the BBS systems and the text adventures they offered. I loved it, we ended up getting a second phone line. My friends were all getting services like Prodigy, CompuServe, and AOL while I was investigating this thing called the Internet. We got an account and I have been “online” ever since. I turned that old 486 into a linux dialup router and networked our new computer to it. Then I found MUDs.
When you play an online multiplayer realtime text game, two things happen if you want to be good;
- You get really good at scanning and reading text fast.
- You learn to type as fast as you can!
At first everything was done by hand, but then I found out about programs like Zmud which would let me script responses to certain text. I wrote a script that walked around a low level area finding and killing off kobolds for experience, while I wasn’t sitting at my computer. It was a new kind of fun! Writing “triggers” helped me learn about regex, logic flow, and variables.
My mom used to joke that if I could find a way to program a computer to open a window, I would never have to get up. I’m pretty sure I got the last laugh when I showed her my nest thermostat being set on my iPhone.
My endeavors weren’t just in computers and software, but in physical hacking too. When I was in 5th grade, I met a retired electrical engineer and he started to tutor me in electronics. By 6th grade, he helped my build a solar powered car (1/16th scale) for my science fair. It used broken solar panel pieces, foil, and some rechargable batteries to make the whole thing work.
My biological father (parents divorced when I was 1) was a software engineer for the Navy. He was the first person to introduce me to a PC. His father (my grandpa) was the one who sent me my first computer. My mom’s father was a more physical hacker, a carpenter/fix-it man his whole life. He helped me build my first R/C plane out of Styrofoam and Monokote when I was 10 or 11.
When I was 18, I started a LANparty because I loved gaming on a network with friends nearby. It was also a natural way for me to dabble with networking and topology building. We grew to 120 person party every month, so I had to really optimize for traffic on the LAN. We had 3com managed switched with gigabit fiber backbone uplinks to the main switch. It was fascinating to play with SNMP and all the various stats you could pull out when you had a LAN full of traffic. I used these skills on my resume to help me get better jobs. One of my bosses once told me he picked me over other candidates because he could tell when I talked about the LAN party that I cared a lot about learning and growing through technology.
I see my kids now and they are fascinated by MythBusters and doing “science experiments”. We even bought a few of the MythBuster kits for Christmas last year, which they constantly ask to get out and work on. Discovering new things can be a real pleasure and I hope as a parent I can keep pushing my kids forward in that regard.
I watch as they get their iPads out and connect to a group Minecraft game and I am just amazed as I watch a 4, 7, and 8 year old create wonderful structures in their shared world. I actually had to break up a real fight because one of them was destroying another sibling’s house! I hope that they will always have this same drive to create that I do.
I hope with tools like the Raspberry Pi and Arduino that I can offer them tools for the learning things in a similar fashion to me. I hope the tech industry doesn’t follow suit with car makers and start closing off how things work. It would be a shame if we can’t learn from the things around us.
I remember wanting to build a stats dashboard (in Rails) that I would either open source or turn into a product - everyone around me told me that no one would pay for a dashboard SaaS. Geckoboard launched two months later. I was sad that I didn’t keep hacking because others discouraged me.
Don’t ever stop building new things.